Meditations in Hebrews 13: 61. Church Leadership (2)
Heb 13:17 Obey your leaders and submit to their authority.
We now pick up on the second aspect of church leadership in verse 17 onwards. I am aware that I often appear critical of so much of modern Church life and so I should state that I love the Lord and I love his people and yet as I look around, so often the church life I observe falls very far short of the New Testament teaching. Having a sense of where this particular study is going I have to say yet again that in most churches that I know they fall short in respect of the things I am about to cover here.
Let’s look at verse 17 in its entirety: “Obey your leaders and submit to their authority. They keep watch over you as men who must give an account. Obey them so that their work will be a joy, not a burden, for that would be of no advantage to you.” There are clearly a number of things to note here. These men (and I am afraid this is another of the signs that in the kingdom men have to take the responsibility of leadership and be answerable to God – “give an account”), because they are called by God are his representatives and are accountable to Him and therefore have His authority to lead and direct the church.
We will come on to the matter of obedience in a moment, but it is worth noting that already there have been two earlier references in this book that pertain to leaders. Do you remember back in chapter 2 – “This salvation, which was first announced by the Lord, was confirmed to us by those who heard him.” (Heb 2:3) There was something very obvious back there – we have our salvation today, each one of us, because someone before us heard the message and passed it on to us. If no one else does it, that is the role given to leaders, to ensure that the message is passed on and received by others so that the church continues and grows. A leader who does convey the Gospel is falling short of his calling. The receiving of the Gospel is what generates the church, if we may put it like that, in harmony with the work of the Spirit.
But then in chapter 5 we had a significant challenge that believers should be learners and should grow: “In fact, though by this time you ought to be teachers, you need someone to teach you the elementary truths of God’s word all over again. You need milk, not solid food! Anyone who lives on milk, being still an infant, is not acquainted with the teaching about righteousness. But solid food is for the mature, who by constant use have trained themselves to distinguish good from evil.” (Heb 5:12-14) Notice those words, “You need someone”. That ‘someone’ will be a church leader. But the bigger thrust of that passage is that the apostle teaches that we should ALL be growing up in the faith, i.e. we should be learning and changing and growing into maturity.
To the church at Ephesus, the apostle Paul taught of Christ’s work, “And he gave the apostles, the prophets, the evangelists, the shepherds[a] and teachers, to equip the saints for the work of ministry, for building up the body of Christ, until we all attain to the unity of the faith and of the knowledge of the Son of God, to mature manhood,[c] to the measure of the stature of the fullness of Christ.” (Eph 4:11-13) Although we have a list of certain ministries that the Lord has provided for the church, for our present consideration the most important words in the passage are, “to equip the saints for the work of ministry”
The Message version expands that work of these ministries: “to train Christ’s followers in skilled servant work, working within Christ’s body, the church, until we’re all moving rhythmically and easily with each other, efficient and graceful in response to God’s Son, fully mature adults.” Do you see the thrust that is here in the New Testament? Leaders are to teach AND train up God’s people, releasing them into their individual giftings in Christ, learning to relate together and work together within the body of Christ (see 1 Cor. 12)
In the ‘Great Commission of Matt. 28, Jesus’ closing instructions include in respect of all believers, “teaching them to obey everything I have commanded you.” That is about ‘doing’ which is why I included the word ‘train’ above. Previously Jesus taught, “I tell you, whoever believes in me will do the works I have been doing.” (Jn. 14:12) Perhaps for simplicity sake, we might say here that this means, anyone who believes in Jesus will move in the same supernatural ministry he moved in, under the power of his Holy Spirit.
The role of church leaders thus becomes teaching these truths and releasing God’s people in faith into being the part of the body of Christ that he has designed them to be. As we focus on God and Christ, so the Spirit will stir within us the gifting He wants to bring through us. Perhaps one of the most crucial roles of the church leader is, I believe, to release faith in God’s people, with a vision of who we are and who we can become in Christ. When leadership operates in this sort of way, the teaching here in Hebrews to “obey your leaders” becomes a joyful thing.
I have recently been watching one of my sons teaching his younger daughter how to swim with a snorkel so she can watch the underwater life in the sea where they live. She has heard her older sister come in exclaiming how wonderful it is to be able to see all the different fish and the vision has been conveyed to her of what she can do – and yet she has to learn and has to take her father’s instructions and the more she does the more confident she becomes and the more she can venture into deeper water to see the wonder of God’s world under the surface. Aren’t there similarities here with what we have been talking about? Following guidance, following instructions is to enable us to enter into a whole new world of the Spirit, as wonderful a world as my granddaughter will be finding under the sea!